According to the World Health Organization (WHO), cancer causes nearly one out of every six deaths and, in the next two decades, WHO expects new cancer diagnoses to increase by approximately 70%. Raising cancer awareness is one of the many reasons why the WHO sponsors World Cancer Day every 4 February. Another reason is to encourage cancer prevention, detection, and treatment. Fortunately, new health technologies continue to emerge at lightning speed, providing empowerment and better disease management for patients.
Towards an AI future
Last year, Microsoft announced the creation of a laboratory designed to cure cancer within the next decade. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are at the core of these efforts. Its team of researchers, programmers, engineers, and computer scientists are working together to:
- Use machine learning and natural language processing to create individualized cancer treatments
- Pair machine learning with computer vision to help identify tumor progression
- Create algorithms that help scientists understand how cancers develop—and how to fight them
- Identify ways scientists can program cells to fight cancer directly
“We can use methods that we’ve developed for programming computers to program biology, and then unlock even more applications and even better treatments,” said Andrew Phillips, in the Microsoft announcement about the cancer laboratory. Phillips heads the biological computation research group at Microsoft’s Cambridge, UK, lab.
Tiny devices, big changes
Nanoscale devices are 100-to-10,000 times smaller than human cells. As such, they’re able to gain access to many areas of the body to detect disease and deliver new types of treatments. In 2017, researchers at Rutgers University-New Brunswick invented a highly-effective method to detect tiny tumors using light-emitting nanoparticles, potentially leading to earlier cancer detection and more targeted treatments. This new method, which involves the injection of nanoprobes (microscopic optical devices) that emit short-wave infrared light as they travel through the bloodstream, is better than magnetic resonance imaging and other cancer surveillance technologies, according to a 2017 study published in Nature Biomedical Engineering.
“Cancer cells can lodge in different niches in the body, and the probe follows the spreading cells wherever they go,” said Vidya Ganapathy, an assistant research professor at Rutgers’ Department of Biomedical Engineering. “You can treat the tumors intelligently because now you know the address of the cancer.”
Isolate the problem
The acronym CAR-T stands for chimeric antigen receptor therapy. In simple terms, CAR-T cell therapy isolates and extracts a patient’s own T-cells (i.e., the white blood cells that stimulate an immune response). Then, it re-engineers those cells with new proteins that recognize and destroy cancer cells once they’re reinfused back into the patient’s body.
The latest advancements in CAR-T cell therapy include the use of a genomic editing tool called CRISPR (which stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) that allows researchers to place the cancer-fighting proteins at very specific genomic locations. In 2017, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved two CAR-T cell therapies, one for the treatment of children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and the other for adults with advanced lymphomas. Research is underway to determine whether CAR-T cell therapy, which has been successful in treating blood cancers, is equally as effective for solid tumors. In January, physicians at the University of Pennsylvania announced a clinical trial in which they’ll use CRISPR to modify human immune cells to treat multiple myeloma, sarcoma, and melanoma. China has performed similar studies with promising results.
A fund for transformation
The Cancer Research Institute awarded its 2017 Technology Impact Award to Dongeun Huh, PhD, from the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Bioengineering, who will receive a $1 million grant to develop a microchip-based research model that mimics human cancer and immune cell interactions. The model will allow researchers to study the interactions between cancer cells and key components of the immune system involved in cancer elimination. It could also serve as a screening platform to test the effectiveness and safety of new cancer-fighting drugs.
Blood tests 2.0
Liquid biopsies assess mutations and other changes in DNA shed from tumors in the blood, providing deep insights into the earliest signs of cancer. In a report released in early 2018, Research and Markets projects the global liquid biopsy market to cross the $5 billion mark by the end of 2023. Currently, North America has the largest market for the liquid biopsy industry, and in 2016, the U.S. FDA approved the first liquid biopsy test for use in cancer. More recently, this revolutionary non-invasive cancer test continues to show its promise as a tool for routine cancer screenings and a potential alternative to tumor biopsy.
When it comes to cancer care and prevention, there’s plenty to look forward to throughout 2018. The UK will wrap up its 100,000 Genomes Project by the end of the year, providing new insights into cancers, as well as rare and infectious diseases.
The industry may also see new cancer prevention solutions that make use of wearable technology. During the recent World Economic Forum in Switzerland, Rajeev Suri, chief executive of Nokia, said wearable devices will soon be able to monitor biomarkers that can predict cancer months before it occurs.
Also on the rise are electronic medical record analytics tools that help physicians gain new insights into population health management for patients with cancer. Consumer-friendly technologies, including online communities such as Smart Patients and others, will also likely continue to grow in popularity. As patients become more engaged through electronic medical record portals and wearable technology, they’ll continue to share stories, learn from one another and become more empowered.